More than 2 million people will move into the Greater Toronto Area during the next 20 years, bringing with them a million more cars. Where these people live may be the single greatest influence on our quality of life.

Joseph Hall
Toronto Star

TORONTO - Along a stretch of McCowan Rd., just north of 16th St. in Markham, a row of large plywood signs advertises the brick and asphalt future of a once thriving farm.

``Dramatic sun-filled homes,'' the billboards promise.

``Play in acres and miles of trails. A new master-planned community.''

These signs of our urban-sprawl times are selling a lifestyle; one that hundreds of thousands of people continue to choose in the Greater Toronto Area.

But it's a lifestyle - a dream for generations of families - that has led invariably and inescapably to the worst traffic congestion the region has ever known.

It's a dream that will largely have to die, most experts say, if the GTA is to avoid choking on its own congestion.

Because congestion is not a result of how you drive, but of how you choose to live.

The seemingly healthy, benign suburban lifestyle throughout the GTA's 905 regions and beyond is spreading severe congestion on to southern Ontario's roads and highways.

The more single-family home developments that are built in greater Toronto, the more congestion there will be. That's the incontestable reality.

And these low-density developments are spreading like a savannah fire over the area's rich countryside.

``If we don't take a new approach to development, we will have 10 Torontos in the GTA in 50 years,'' says veteran municipal leader Alan Tonks, outgoing chair of the Greater Toronto Services Board.

`This is one of the classic traps we all fall into; we see congestion on the road as a transportation problem, but really, fundamentally, it's an issue of how we build our cities.'

-- Eric Miller
Transportation specialist, University of
Toronto civil engineering department

``We will have an urban area that will be Los Angeles-style between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe and from the Clarington border right over to Hamilton-Wentworth.''

And with Los Angeles-type sprawl will come L.A.-style road congestion - making what are already infuriating traffic tie-ups very nearly unbearable.

Sprawl dwellers purchase the makings of such congestion along with their 60-foot lots and their two-car garages.

Simply put, sprawl forces people to use cars, it forces them to use cars often, and it removes the real possibility of an efficient transit alternative.

Clumps of single-family home developments, flung haphazardly around the 905 regions, offer no natural transportation corridors for residents to follow.

Unlike the city proper, where a massive downtown core provides an easily accessible work, shopping, entertainment and residential nexus for hundreds of thousands of daily commuters, sprawl offers no such central hub.

``There's a couple of million people out there in the 905 and they're generating a lot of automobile trips,'' says Eric Miller, a transportation specialist in the University of Toronto's civil engineering department.

``But the destinations for those trips are dispersed all over the place because there are no well-concentrated centres of activity and there are no linear travel corridors.''

With a shopping mall in one direction, a school in another, the kids' soccer pitch over here and the office or plant over there, sprawl creates what planners call a ``many to many'' pattern of road use.

``From any one origin to any one destination there are not too many trips going on, but in total, there are a lot of trips,'' Miller says.

``And while people might use the road infrastructure for short periods at a time, they use it very often and so it becomes congested.''

Indeed, 905 households generate an average of six or more separate automobile trips each a day, Miller says.

More important, these erratic, frequent and individualized traffic patterns are anathema to efficient transit, making the automobile sprawl's sole effective transportation option and an indispensable element of suburban life.

One subway line, Miller says, can carry more people than 12 lanes of freeway.

``But for the subway to exist, you have to have a concentration of people along a linear travel corridor,'' he says. ``That doesn't exist in the 905. In the 905, there is collectively a large demand that can only be serviced by the automobile.''

The mass use of cars for even the most minute of journeys has led to the migration of congestion out into suburbia.

Indeed, the GTA's traditional traffic jam routes, those flowing in and out of downtown Toronto, have not seen a significant congestion increase since the 1960s.

It's suburban congestion that is spiralling upwards, says TTC chief general manager Rick Ducharme, adding his agency and GO Transit have picked up most of the extra downtown commuters.

Congestion in suburbia is expressed in a far more disruptive way than it is downtown, Ducharme says.

``Congestion is not just a lot of cars. It's if you're moving slowly in traffic, how far do you have to move.''

It's one thing to have to drive through heavy traffic in a physically compact downtown area, where there's also a healthy transit alternative.

``It's a whole different thing when someone has to travel long distances, like from Mississauga to Markham through congestion,'' Ducharme says. ``And if the amount of traffic grows in these (905) places to the level it is downtown, you've got really serious problems.''

Unless current development trends change, however, experts say downtown traffic levels will indeed move to the 905.

A 1996 study estimated that by 2021, demand on the regional road systems is expected to increase by 112 per cent in Durham Region, 69 per cent in Peel, 65 per cent in Halton and 97 per cent in York Region.

Under current plans, this traffic growth would be accompanied by a mere 12 per cent increase in actual road capacity throughout the Greater Toronto Area.

This insupportable combination of heightened demand and stagnant road growth will push actual driving times between increasingly diversified GTA destinations through the roof.

While no recent studies have been done, a decade ago a rush-hour trip between Newmarket and Pearson International Airport could be made in 50 minutes. By 2021 it will take an hour and 26 minutes.

A peak period trip between downtown Oshawa and Markham, made in 55 minutes a decade ago, will also take about one hour and 26 minutes, 20 years from now.

These are not inalterable numbers.

But neither are they numbers that will be diminished by increasing the highway capacity in the GTA, experts say.

Highways drive sprawl. And the expansion of urban freeway systems has always and everywhere been accompanied by even higher levels of suburban sprawl and congestion.

Joseph Schofer, professor of civil engineering at Chicago's Northwestern University, says building new roads might alleviate traffic jams in the short run. But in the end, more roads lead to constant congestion levels over an ever larger urban area.

``When you build highway capacity, it relaxes the constraints on growth and growth occurs,'' says Schofer, who is a member of the school's prestigious transportation study centre.

``So people say you can't build your way out of congestion and in the long run that's true, you probably end up with the same levels of congestion, you've just got a bigger urban area to be congested in.''

Most experts say mass transit is the only viable solution to regional traffic problems.

But before effective transit can be installed in suburban areas, a crucial first step must taken, Schofer says.

``Transit is a fine idea, but only if you get control of the development process,'' he says. ``If you don't control development, you're just throwing money away.''

Here then, is the heart of a grid-lock solution.

To even make a start you must bridge the intellectual and political gap that currently exists between land use planning and transportation planning - between our thinking on how we develop and how we drive.

``This is one of the classic traps we all fall into; we see congestion on the road as a transportation problem, but really, fundamentally, it's an issue of how we build our cities,'' Miller says.

Yet even at the municipal level, where the vast majority of city planning is done, the connection between land use and transportation has eluded many.

Ducharme recalls sending a senior TTC staffer to speak with a group of 905 politicians recently about boosting transit in their towns and cities.

``He went on at length about the need for densities and proper planning and then these guys said to him, `Hey, wait a minute, are you giving a presentation on transportation or land use?','' Ducharme says.

``He said, `Well that's the point. Get it? Land use drives transit.'''

In the GTA, experts say, a once proud tradition of land use planning has been largely eroded by profit mad developers, obliging municipal councils and a stunning provincial lethargy.

``The province has abdicated their planning responsibility in every realm,'' says Ed Levy, a veteran Toronto transportation consultant and an adviser to the city's board of trade.

``In past times, provincial governments had a very key role in urging regional planning philosophies . . . and now there's an absolute renunciation of that as far as we can see.''

While Levy sees the provincial Tories as ``a bunch of anti-urban rednecks,'' he is one of many experts to declare that Queen's Park holds the key to reinvigorating the GTA's planning process - a process that was once the envy of North American city builders.

Planning, which was once closely scrutinized by the province, has been divided in the GTA between the city, the regions and the various municipalities contained within them.

And with the division of municipal planning processes, developers have been able to conquer them.

``What happens is that the whole game within these smaller municipalities becomes you have to chase ratepayers, you chase assessment,'' says Tonks.

``And you do that because to build those community centres and schools, to put people in the malls and shops of Stouffville or Milton, you need more and more people.''

This game of ``chasing raters'' has played right into the grasping hands of the development industry, says veteran Toronto councillor and TTC chair Howard Moscoe.

``In a growth municipality, there's always a close relationship between the municipal politicians and developers because the majority of what most local councils do is approve development.

``And that's why it's no secret that the development industry contributes huge amounts of money to municipal political campaigns.''

On the occasions developers are denied permission to build by democratically elected councils, they've been repeatedly shown a nearly sure fire back-door alternative, Moscoe says.

``Some 21 per cent of developments in this province are now being approved by the Ontario Municipal Board,'' he says.

While 905 municipalities have usually been anxious to accommodate developments, they have traditionally been kept in a modicum of check by their subservience to the official plans of the regions.

``Regional governments were supposed to have plans that defined the balance between their urban and rural areas and that didn't fit into the template that everybody had to chase raters,'' Tonks says.

``But now (through provincial downloading) we've got the regions having to raise mega-millions for hospitals and health care and social services. It forces the little communities to have to try and get more and more assessment and now they have regional blessing.''

The regions' current plans, which were formulated along provincial guidelines between 1994 and 1998, have all envisioned a ``nodal'' style of development that's a far cry from the current reality.

The nodal development theory says that new communities should be built with high-density centres - or nodes - that provide employment, shopping, entertainment and housing facilities for the majority of people living in the area.

Outside the nodes, development would radiate along high-density corridors that provide natural transit pathways to and from the bustling community centres.

Under nodal planning, the green space and rural areas surrounding the high-density centres and corridors would be jealously protected.

In York Region, for example, planners envisioned four regional nodes offering compact, efficient communities in which 90 per cent of the population would live within 500 metres of a transit stop.

A new study commissioned by the charitable Neptis Foundation shows just how far things have drifted from current regional plans.

``They're not close at all,'' says Tony Coombs, who manages the foundation, set up specifically to study and disseminate information on the GTA.

``The whole business of nodes and corridors is not becoming a reality.''

The study, conducted by Toronto planning consultant Pamela Blais, is the first in many years to actually document where housing developments are located in Greater Toronto. And Coombs says what it shows is disturbing.

``It's six units to the acre spreading all over the place,'' he says. ``And that's happening because the developers who own the land only know how to do that . . . that's what's easiest for them, single-family houses.''

Another Neptis study, one of six commissioned by the foundation and released this year, shows these types of homes are eating up the GTA's best farmland at a frightening rate. In 1967, 62 per cent of the Greater Toronto Area's 7,161 square kilometres was comprised of Class 1 to Class 3farmland - among the best in the world. By 1999, the percentage of prime farmland had dropped to 44 per cent.

If land currently approved for development or designated as urban by the municipalities is taken into account, that percentage drops further still to 38 per cent.


`If we don't take a new approach to development, we will have 10 Torontos in the GTA in 50 years. We will have an urban area that will be Los Angeles-style between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe and from the Clarington border right over to Hamilton-Wentworth.'


- Alan Tonks
Outgoing chair of the
Greater Toronto
Services Board

To stem this mass destruction of farmland by the spread of urban sprawl, two things must happen.

First, a comprehensive strategy to govern growth throughout the GTA must be devised and enacted.

Second, a political body must be designated to oversee this strategy, and be given the clout to ensure it's adhered to.

``It's all about jurisdiction,'' says Hok-Lin Leung, a professor at Queen's University's school of regional and urban studies.

``And if each municipality calls its own shots, then it's in their own self-interest to build whatever the market sustains at the moment, which for the masses at this moment is still suburban homes.''

If a strong regional authority did exist, most experts say its priorities should be:

  • Ensuring that at least half of the 2 million additional residents expected in the GTA area over the next two decades be accommodated within a much more tightly woven city of Toronto.
  • Pushing stronger transit out into the 905 regions in the hopes that more efficient alternatives to the automobile will attract higher density development around express bus or commuter rail corridors.
  • Looking for ways to tax suburban homes so their price reflects their true infrastructure and pollution costs.

Tonks says any regional authority - including his own - would need strong public support to implement such priorities. And, he says, they can find that backing in the rolling hills of the Oak Ridges Moraine.

The huge public support now building to save the watershed from development, Tonks says, could flow down into the rest of the GTA as an anti-sprawl balm.

``It's a symbol that transcends parochial and narrow communities of interests and finds people rallying around that symbol and saying `no, in the interest of sustainable development everywhere and for the legacy we give to future generations, this has to change'.''